With cross-cultural roots from France, Native America, Africa, West Indies, and sprinklings of other European countries, along with 300 years of colonization, immigration, and intermarriages of cultures, it’s no wonder Cajun and Creole foods have become integrated among modern day restaurants like Copeland’s of New Orleans – Atlanta. However, it is the individual histories that separate Creole and Cajun cuisines the most. Their stories define the flavors. Admittedly, those flavor profiles can be subtle—and debatable, according to whose family you ask.
Tomatoes—amongst other things
Jambalaya is one of the many traditional dishes that are heavily debated amongst families with long-held recipes over one simple ingredient: tomatoes. Creole based jambalaya includes a tomato base, while Cajun jambalaya does not. In fact, if you ask most Cajun cooks today, they’d rather fight than even consider putting tomatoes in their jambalaya.
While tomatoes may seem like an arbitrary ingredient, back in the 18th century, this was one of the “exotic” resources made available to the aristocratic society of Creoles. Early Creoles consisted of descendents of rich French and Spanish settlers, and consequently, descendents of African slaves. Thanks to the triangle trade between Europe, Africa, and the West Indies, the growing city of New Orleans brought and introduced different flavors—such as tomatoes—to the city that weren’t locally available. This was strictly a Creole experience, which is why we can still see these small yet significant differences in dishes such as jambalaya.
As to why tomatoes are still being debated today when it is readily available in neighborhood grocery stores, it comes down to preserving one’s heritage. Today’s Cajun cooks follow and honor the recipes of their ancestors who put all the ingredients they could find into one pot for everyone to enjoy. Ancestors of Cajun country were French Canadians who originally lived in modern day Nova Scotia, but were displaced to Louisiana as a result of British colonist overtake. Using the resources the swamplands provided, along with their French style of cooking and Native American influences, Cajun cuisine was born.
Today, Cajun food is seen as a “country” style cooking due to its rustic ingredients and presentation. This is largely in part by the early Cajuns turning to wild game, seafood, rice, and spices to fill their cast iron pots as a means to provide sustainable and hearty meals that could be shared amongst many.
Knowing the history of the two cuisines makes it just a little bit easier to spot the differences when looking at traditional dishes made in modern day homes and restaurants. Copeland’s has a variety of dishes that pay homage to the two styles of cooking. Copeland’s Jambalaya Pasta, for example, consists of traditional Cajun ingredients such as andouille and smoked sausages (salt, smoke, and a heavy hand of seasoning were used as preservatives for meats in the countryside).
Copeland’s Pecan-Crusted Ricochet Catfish, on the other hand, is served with a delicious Creole meuniere sauce that uses a long-established luxury item of early Creoles: butter. These are just some items guests can find on the extensive menu in Copeland’s at weekend buffets and catering events. If you know anyone who appreciates Cajun or Creole cuisine as much as Copeland’s, get them a gift card—and watch for yourselves how harsh the fight over tomatoes can get!